One of the first church debates that I recall as a child regarded the use of applause in the church service. Interestingly, it is also the earliest point at which I realized that I tended to favor traditionalism over the new form of Evangelical service.
As a child, our church practiced two verbal forms that fell out of use fairly rapidly as the 1980s wore on – the use of the Amen and the practice for adult believers to address each other as Brother and/or Sister (er, usually just one or the other). While I clearly recall both verbal forms being readily and commonly employed, I have no clear idea as to their actual historicity or whether they relate to the Mennonite heritage or to the American Evangelical heritage of the church and conference.
The Amen controversy centered on the perceived correct response to special music, music in general and other special presentations during the church service. Since the 1960s, at least, the basic program or protocol for the evangelical Mennonite church service included individual laic participation with a strong focus on special music.
Our church was especially gifted, as are many Mennonite congregations, in the area of music. The EMBer Quartet, the GEM Quartet, Ladies’ Choir, Men’s Chorus, Children’s Choir, solos, duets and special appearances of numbers prepared for the local Christian high school or by traveling ministry teams from the various Bible schools and institutes fundraising and recruiting students.
Family records indicate that the Dallas church was similarly gifted and conference reports are replete with announcements and commendations of the excellent special performances organized by the host churches for the combined worship services.
Nor was this gift of music confined to the sanctuary. Several nationally syndicated gospel programs were accompanied by vocal groups originating in Mennonite churches – included the very popular Radio Bible Class and, according to Moody Bible Institute archives, Moody’s local programming on WMBI-AM.
Bible colleges such as Grace College of the Bible (Grace University) in Omaha, NE, Northwestern Bible College in St Paul, MN, Prairie Bible Institute in Three Hills, AB, and especially, Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, SK, offered courses and training in music, directing and performance alongside courses in Bible History, Theology and Missiology. In fact, one could argue that the greatest impact of the Bible institute on the individual Mennonite congregation was development of and excellence in the music department. If God assigned a body part to represent the Mennonite church, it would probably be the voice.
Similarly, no other aspect of the assimilating ethnic church proved so seamless in compatible agreement as the music traditions and choirs of the Russian Mennonites and the gospel singing of America’s Revivalist movements.
Like preaching and teaching, one would expect to find evidence that music also evolved from a more formal, communal, congregational mode assumed in Anabaptist tradition to the more specialized, more highly trained and individualized performances of today’s Evangelical service (in fact, in many churches, the entire concept of congregational singing seems to have been “outsourced” to a select small group or worship team that performs to set the mood and draw-in the emotions of individual members of the congregation).
As individual performances became more common and more elaborate, attention was increasingly drawn from their contribution to the worship service and towards the individual. Evangelical thinking easily accommodated the individualization of music in the service by deeming it a prayer or offering to God by that individual. This is clearly seen in Charles Sheldon’s classic Christian inspirational novel In His Steps (1874) wherein the lovely Rachel Winslow foregoes a promising and lucrative career in the operatic theatre in order to present her voice as a sacrificial offering to reach lost souls in tent meetings on Skid Row.
Previously, we often encounter in Christian literature, the model of a promising career or future given up for ministering in the Lord’s work. After Charles Sheldon, it would no longer be necessary for a Christian to give up their career or talent – Christ was seen as being able to use the natural gifts or talents of his flock to form duplicate careers within the church. A happy accident of language married the synonym talents, referring to money in the tale of the wise and foolish stewards (ref), to talent, being the natural abilities God has given you. By the 1990s, this doctrine would develop to the point that youth would be encouraged to “play basketball for the Lord” by volunteering in international basketball or sports camps wherein children could be reached through their native love of sports and athletics – play some ball, receive some basic Evangelistic doctrinal training and learn to embody a love for both passions in one’s personal life.
The controversy was simply this – how does one respond appropriately to the display of such talents within the worship service and show one’s appreciation for development and maintenance of such gifts and presenting them before the congregation, often for free?
Now to understand the politics in our church, you would have to know that there was a large generation gap between the WWII generation (the Greatest Generation) and the Vietnam Generation (the Baby Boomers). The Boomers were not pacifists, participated in different media and literature than the Greats, most had married outside of the ethnic church, most had initially moved off the farm, moving back to raise their families, the Boomers spoke only English and were generally the first generation to have gone beyond high school and to have considered an occupation other than farming. In the shaping of attitudes and mores, these were rather large differences.
Of course, exploiting the ties between children and grandparents and growing up too isolated geographically and culturally to know much of the outside world ourselves, we idolized that of our grandparents – come on – our grandparents had tweibach, peppernuts, poncoka, verenika and komst borscht. Mom had mac n’ cheese dinner, bologna sandwiches, hotdogs and Campbell’s soup – still very, very good, but not Grandma’s komst borscht.
The pertinent difference in this case was that our parents, being less formal in church and more inclined to support the fragile egos of their kids – often clapped for the special music, offerings and other individual participation in the worship service – a very well-intentioned act of appreciation and thanks.
Now special music and leadership in the church was slightly class based – not that there could be much real difference between relative incomes in a small farming community, but more a difference of cultural aspiration (and affordable pietism). Oddly, as Mennonites often joke, the more pietist the family, the more likely a proud parent or grandparent was to clap. The rest of us, were less the stars and more the work horses, rising up slowly through the ranks of Sunday School meetings and evening church services, quietly and competently keeping services going in between the occasional guest stars.
Especially in the case of my best friend at the time – an excellent pianist who had no problem getting accepted into the Briercrest Music program – an honour he regrettably declined, but a talented musician bar none.
Quickly, our generation, at least the core volunteer group, reached two conclusions – for non-vocal music numbers, we determined that in as much as music was a type of worship, a prayer to God, it did not necessarily have to be a hymn but could be a piano sonata, a lyrical tonal exercise or an adaptation from a larger classical piece. Above all, a proper solo should be appreciated as just that with no applause to interrupt the service or to demean the presentation. One did not applaud a prayer, one did not applaud the message – one should not applaud the special presentation – and especially not an offertory. In this, we, the emerging Gen XY were united in thought with the Greats. (Silly Boomers.)
The proper response was the one favored by the Greats – a proper and hearty Amen! from their solid perches in the pews – an amen that could follow a prayer, a message, a testimony, a hymn or a musical offering, all equally effectively..
Referencing my new copy of The Jewish Book of Why (1981) by Alfred Kolatch, I found the following two entries:
Why is the word “Amen” used often during public prayer?
The Talmud (Shabbat 119b) indicates that “Amen” is an acrostic from the first letter of the three Hebrew words El Melech Ne’eman (“the Lord is a trustworthy King”). The word “Amen” itself appears for the first time in the Book of Numbers (5:22).
As a response by a congregation to a prayer (Psalms 89:53) or as a declamation (Deuteronomy 27) “Amen” means “truly” or “so be it.” In Temple times, the response to the blessings of the Priests was “Blessed be His glorious Name forever and ever.” After the Temples were destroyed, “Amen” was used in its stead (Taanit 16), (p 152).
Why is “Amen” said at the conclusion of some prayers?
Because many congregants in early times were unable to read, the leader of the service would read an entire prayer. The congregation would listen, and at the conclusion respond “Amen” (see previous question for meaning). This was true, in particular, of prayers like the Amida (Silent Devotion) and the Kaddish, (p 153).
Mennonites, more-than-likely, probably utilize the term based on its inclusion as the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer which established the manner in which Christ’s followers were told to pray (references).
Yet, the reasoning behind the Jewish interpretation (or establishment) of the tradition indicates that it is truly the appropriate response to both prayer and music in the sanctuary.
Whether or not it is properly said ăw-mәn, āy-măn or ăw-māyn – that is a question best left to the individual conscience.
Nor does an amen have to be verbal. An amen can be symbolic – such as the nod of a head or an open palm raised upwards to heaven. (I have often felt that the Southern manner of “Thank you, Jesus!” whether exalted or whispered tends to again diminish the presentation by making it personal to the congregant rather than allowing the prayer to continue unmolested towards Heaven, to the Deity).
I encountered one of the most effective non-verbal amens during a visit to Washington Christian Fellowship in Washington, D.C. Esther K. Augsburger, wife of Mennonite pastor and scholar Myron Augsberger, is a noted sculptor. Esther’s sculptures of arms and hands raised in prayer and/or praise are just as much an amen as could be any phrase. Placed on or behind the altar, these sculptures quite effectively reflect all manner of offering up towards heaven – perhaps summarizing why the Amen! is so effective – it redirects the individual offering up into heaven as a communal offering from the congregational fellowship – wafting ever upwards like the incense in a Roman Catholic ceremony.
While I think that the Greatest Generation, and their grandkids in the XY have lost the battle over applause during the service – seemingly so many people do not seem that inclined to put so much thought into their religion these days anyway – oft preferring that which comes naturally or impulsively to them in the moment. Yet, there might be good practical thinking behind the consideration of doing it differently.
Try it sometime – like a taste test – and see how it feels – a hearty Amen! rather than a robust applause. Then, I guess, do what comes most naturally.